Thanet Writers Research Music and Creativity

Writer David Chitty researches the effects of music on creativity on behalf of Thanet Writers.

Image Credit: 
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin / Public Domain

Whilst many writers prefer to work in silence, others enjoy simple background noise. Others listen to music; either a particular genre, or varieties depending on the type of scene they are writing. The variety of musical genres and styles that writers listen to is incredibly varied, as musical taste is extremely subjective and hard to quantify. Despite this, there have been studies on the effect that music has on creativity.

To understand how music affects creativity, we must first look at how we are creative. I’ve already explored this in more depth researching drugs, drink and creativity but, as an overview, this is how humans are creative.

There are three networks in the brain: The Attention Control Network (ACN), The Imagination Network (IN) and the Attention Flexibility Network (AFN), that all work together to come up with ideas. The ACN controls our ability to focus; this decreases while the IN—the thing that allows us to be imaginative—increases. The AFN controls these two networks. This is what allows us to go from hyper-focused—for example, during editing—to being extremely creative when writing.

Until recently, the effect of music on this process has been largely unexplored. There has been a significant amount of work looking into if music can boost cognition in general, but creative thinking specifically is only now being researched. The studies that have been conducted on creativity and music have looked at the effect of different music against a silent control group. The different types of music were four classical music excerpts varying on valance and arousal. This means, basically, music of varying happiness.

What the studies found was that those who were listening to the happy classical music did show an improvement over the silent control group when it came to creative thinking. There is one rather significant problem with this, however. What is happy music?

There was a study that looked at defining the happiest song ever created, and Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ came out on top. It’s easy to say that a certain level of beats per minute, the tempo or the overall composition of a song can define it as an objectively happy song, but does that make it a happy song for you?

Generally speaking, music can be defined as happy by two different factors. Your feelings towards the music and how arousing it is—which in this context means how much it affects you emotionally. You may enjoy calm music, for instance, but it doesn’t emotional arouse you. You may respond very strongly to unsettling music, but that doesn’t mean that you like it. Happy music is something that you both enjoy and that elicits a positive emotional reaction. For the most part, music becomes happier as it gets faster. That, however, is not the rule for everybody and, as with many things, it is deeply personal.

The question then becomes: what does all this mean for you? Happy music has been shown to increase creative thinking, so it can be used to help your brain along when you’re writing. To have an effect, however, you need to find music that provides a positive emotional response to you and music that you enjoy. It’s impossible to say what genre, artist, era or type of music that will be—that will be personal to you. Anecdotal evidence acknowledges those who use music to improve creativity find they are less able to focus on what they are working on without background noise. That could be because music blocks the outside world and minimises distractions, or it could be because their brains are being more creative. Until more research is done, it’s going to be very hard to prove. That being said, if listening to music works for you then carry on.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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